We’ve had a busy first two weeks in the Valley. I’m writing this from our very spacious two-bedroom tent (kindly lent to us by Matt Roberts) in a slightly damp Camp 4. For those of you who don’t know, Camp 4 is a basic walk-in camp-ground in the Yosemite Valley fully equipped with toilets and bear boxes to keep your food safe from furry creatures in the night (more about those in part 2). If you are a climber on a budget, then Camp 4 is the place to stay. 99% of Camp 4 inhabitants are here to climb and this shared interest makes it a great sociable environment to base yourself. Climbers from around the world are drawn to the granite cliffs in Yosemite. We’ve shared our campsite with some great people in the last couple of weeks, always willing to share their adventures, give advice on routes and offer gear to borrow.
Paul and I started this trip with the goal of climbing some classic free routes, to dip our toes into the world of big walls and ultimately have a stab at climbing The Nose on El Capitan. Big wall climbing involves climbing a face which takes the majority of teams more than a day to complete. This means you need to take all your food, water, bivvy kit, as well as ropes and climbing gear up the wall with you. It involves hauling a huge bag up each pitch after you have climbed it, then sleeping on a ledge somewhere on the face.
Big wall climbing also involves aid climbing. With such big routes, there are normally lots of sections where it’s impossible to climb with just your hands and feet on the rock. This is when you must aid climb. It involves putting a piece of gear in the rock then clipping an aider (nylon sling ladder) to it, then stepping up and then repeating the process a little bit higher. It requires total trust in your gear placement as well as some funky new gear we don’t use in the UK. We had never done big wall or aid climbing so we were looking forward to a fair few challenges!
We had some practice to do.
We had hired a car from LAX Airport for two days so we could get to the Valley without the hassle of public transport. It also meant we could do a big food shop in Merced, two hours away from Yosemite, in a cheaper supermarket. Fortunately, the nice lady at the car rental gave us a free upgrade to a big 4x4 (a sucker for the English charm). This meant we had loads of space for food and all our gear.
We arrived at Yosemite Valley around mid-day. On our drive through the Valley, sun blazing, we got our first glimpse of El Cap. It’s big; scarily big! It’s around 3000 feet of near-vertical granite, some 30 pitches of rock climbing to get to the top and a real neck aching view from the road. A mixture of excitement and trepidation came over us but the psyche was high. It suddenly became real, after two days of travelling and a handful of hours’ sleep, we just wanted to get climbing.
We pulled into the campsite, pitched our home for the next month and drove over to Manure Pile Buttress. A crag between Camp 4 and El Capitan boasted a number of starred multi-pitch routes only 5 minutes’ walk from the carpark. We choose Nutcracker, a 5-pitch 5.8 (equivalent to a VS in the UK) given 5 stars in the guidebook, as our first taste of Yosemite rock. The vast majority of climbing in the Yosemite is crack climbing. Climbing a single crack with few features on either side. To climb these involves jamming hands and feet into the crack and twisting them in to stay on the rock. It’s a very different style to what we are used to in the UK, especially for us in Dorset. We quickly realised that it’s very difficult to compare UK grades and US grades. Nutcracker involved all sorts of styles to climb it, including an amazing layback crack, finger jamming, hand jamming and delicate smearing on polished granite. The route was brilliant, which the polish showed.
Second day, after dropping the hire car back, (the free bus service around the Valley meant there was no need for a vehicle for a month), we had time for another route on Manure Pile Buttress called After 7; a cool 2-pitch 5.8 with some hand jamming and face climbing. We joined it up with the last 4 pitches of After 6, a slightly easier and one of the most popular routes in the Valley.
Over the next few days we climbed some 5 star Valley free climbs, including the 16-pitch Royal Arches 5.7 A0, Central Pillar of Frenzy 5.9 on Middle Cathedral as well as hand full of routes at Church Bowl. We were beginning to get to grips with the different climbing style as well as getting used to waiting on belays. The Valley attracts a lot of climbers and we were choosing to climb some of the most popular routes. You had to get there early to avoid the que or adopt a more relaxed approach to waiting your turn, the latter took some time for me to get used to.
We were 5 days in, climbed some great free routes but were itching to start our big wall training. We decided on the South face of Washington Column as our first foray into big walls and aid climbing. The South face was an 11 pitch route graded 5.8 C1, the easiest big wall in the Valley and a good warm up for things to come. 5.8 grade describes the free climbing required on the route and C1 describes the aid grade. For the climbing geeks out there the C rating is for hand placed protection only, no hammering in pegs. C1 being easy aid moves on good gear through to C5 being the hardest moves on very marginal gear which often won’t support body weight.
Our strategy was to catch the first bus of the day, walk the hour or so to the base and be climbing by 9.00am. The large bivvy ledge known as Dinner ledge was only 3 pitches up, so most people climb to there and fix a rope up to pitch 5 then abseil down to the ledge to sleep. The next day you ascend up the fixed ropes and climb the remaining 6 pitches and abseil off. This means you can leave the haul bag on the dinner ledge and pick it up as you abseil past. This was our plan. The first hiccup came when Paul left the guide book on the bus. We had to wait for the bus to come back round which put us behind 45min. We arrived at the base pretty sweaty after sharing the load of the haul bag and started up. The first pitch was easy angled which made hauling the heavy bag up pretty tough. Luckily Paul had had his Weetabix and blasted through. I climbed through the first aid pitch without to many problems and we made the Dinner Ledge by 1.00. It was hot, the south face as you can imagine gets plenty on sun with temperatures around 25-30 degrees. We kicked back on the large ledge, rehydrated and had a bagel.
Around midday, a team behind us had caught us up at the Dinner Ledge and were moving well. They were trying Skull Queen, a parallel route to ours which shared the same 4 pitches. We were ahead of schedule and enjoying some relaxation time in the Sun, so offered for them to cut in ahead of us. The next pitch was the crux of the route. The Kor roof, was an imposing pitch which climbed a blank wall then crossed an enormous roof. What we didn’t know was the women now about to lead this pitch was her first ever aid climbing experience on her first big wall. By the time the team had finished the pitch is was almost 5.00pm! I led the pitch, swinging across the roof on bolts and awkwardly rounding the lip onto easier ground. Paul then ascended the rope and ‘cleaned’ the pitch by removing all the gear I had placed, which was easier said than done. It was already getting dark so we decided not to do the next pitch and abseil down to the ledge. We were pooped. After some delicious cold tinned ravioli inside washed down with a dry bagel, we were ready for sleep.